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Thursday, February 21 , 2019, 10:17 am | Partly Cloudy 52º


Harris Sherline: 10 Years Later, Putting 9/11 in Historical Perspective

Unlike World War II, the War on Terrorism has divided a nation

Contemplating the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 Islamofascist attacks on America has generated a torrent of thoughts and reactions. Among them, I can’t help wondering why our nation is so divided about the War on Terrorism?

I was in high school during World War II, and I don’t remember any major disagreements among Americans about the war — whether we should be fighting it at all, or whether we brought the Pearl Harbor attack on ourselves, or whether we should take the fight to the Japanese.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously memorialized Dec. 7, 1941 as “a date which will live in infamy.” There was no hesitation about what our response should be, nor do I remember any equivocation during the conduct of the war, which did not end until after we dropped A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Everyone understood that we were in a fight for our very existence. A fight we did not start and for which we were not prepared, but surely one we had to finish, or we would have ceased to exist as a nation. It was a simple proposition: They win, we lose — live or die.

That’s the nature of wars. You can’t fight wars in a half-hearted or politically correct way. For all the talk about the Geneva Conventions, they are not regulated by some sort of Marquess of Queensbury rules, and everyone understood that.

So, what’s different now, 70 years later?

» For starters, our politics: We are clearly divided over whether the War on Terrorism is a real war or some sort of regional conflict, or if, in fact, it’s a war at all, as opposed to criminal activity that more properly falls within the purview of the justice system.

» A clear understanding of who the enemy is: In past wars, everyone knew who the enemy was. That was still true during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and communism in general. But today, not everyone seems to fully appreciate or agree that we are fighting an enemy that transcends national boundaries, whose motivation is based on religious beliefs.

» Letting the military run the war: During WWII, we let our military make the essential decisions about how the war should be fought. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was given a free hand to wage the fight in the Pacific. It was pretty much the same for President Dwight Eisenhower in Europe. We lost Vietnam because our political leaders interfered with the conduct of the war, with disastrous consequences.

» Acceptance of the nature of war: Recognizing that war is brutal, that no quarter is given and that it can’t be conducted in a politically correct way. During WWII, Americans did not question the necessity of fighting with no holds barred. The objective in past wars has always been to bring the enemy to their knees, striking against centers of production and destroying their ability to produce weapons. That invariably caused significant civilian casualties. As terrible as that may have been, it was generally accepted as necessary. London and many Russian cities were nearly totally destroyed by the Germans, and many German cities were nearly bombed out of existence by the Allies.

» Agreement on the meaning of the term “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”: Supporting our enemies during times of war has always been considered treasonous. We went astray during the Vietnam War, as exemplified by the Chicago Seven and the likes of Jane Fonda. But during WWII there was no doubt what the term meant. Today, there don’t seem to be any limitations on the behavior of U.S. citizens or the media, including releasing classified information to the public.

» Wars are messy: For all the strategic and tactical planning that goes on during wars, the fact is that both sides are constantly maneuvering to gain the advantage, and their moves are constantly changing. Eisenhower, the commander of Allied Forces in Europe, said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

» Recognizing that wars often last for many years: Many Americans are already showing signs of fatigue in the process of what promises to be a fight that could last for a generation. We’ve been in Iraq for eight years and people have grown weary of it. But the Brits didn’t pull their troops out of Northern Ireland for almost 40 years of fighting. Many Americans appear to have the mistaken impression that wars are waged in the time span of a television show or a movie, but the reality is that they may last for decades.

» America has not been placed on a “wartime” footing: In general, we don’t seem to be deprived of anything because we are at war. For many Americans, there has been little or no direct consequence affecting their personal lifestyles, careers, education or other aspect of their lives — no significant shortages, no rationing, no military draft. Indirectly, of course, everyone has been affected by massive government spending to finance the effort. And although our individual freedoms have been curtailed somewhat by the Patriot Act, it doesn’t appear to be unreasonably limiting them. There are those, of course, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who argue otherwise, but I don’t believe it’s possible for us to protect ourselves adequately without also limiting our rights to some degree. Unlimited freedoms are simply not possible in wartime.

As we approached the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Cal Thomas wrote on Townhall.com: “‘Why didn’t we see 9/11 coming?’ was a question frequently asked in the aftermath of that terrorist attack. And the answer should be, because we forgot the attacks preceding that one, or brushed them off as inconsequential aberrations so we could get back to watching the stock market go up and obsess about Bill Clinton’s pants coming down. By not remembering those earlier attacks, the reasons behind them and the intentions of the terrorists and those who trained and incited them, we put ourselves in further jeopardy. ... Not to remember 9/11 is to forget what brought it about. That can lead to a lowering of our guard and a false sense of security.”

That’s what concerns me as I contemplate another anniversary of 9/11, that the attack has not become a battle cry, like “Remember Pearl Harbor,” exhorting Americans to never forget that we are at war, that we must not only remain vigilant but that we must respond directly to the threat of Islamofacists everywhere, at home and abroad, or we risk becoming just another footnote to history.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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